Four lessons from COVID-19 for developing Nigeria’s digital economy

By AT editor - 2 July 2020 at 2:36 am
Four lessons from COVID-19 for developing Nigeria’s digital economy

By Adekemi Omotubora

COVID-19 is ravishing the world, putting in focus both the public health and economic implications. For a country like Nigeria, hemorrhaging its revenue from oil, the catastrophe of the pandemic also stresses the need to develop a diversified Nigerian economy – and it is a digital economy.

For all its sorrow, the coronavirus has driven interest in, and demand for, digital health solutions that the World Health Organization says are successful in screening populations, tracking infections, allocating resources and designing targeted responses. The fact that more than 30 countries have now developed contact tracing apps to simultaneously track infection and aid the opening of their economies demonstrates that technology can provide solutions to specific socioeconomic problems and also offer a bailout for the wider economy.

But at the same time, a second lesson made clear by the COVID-19 crisis is that Nigeria is a DRIP (data rich, information poor) economy. Nigeria lacks efficiency in its data collection points, which are not only locked in silos but are also poorly structured. Examples include information collected by the Nigerian Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the electoral, immigration and traffic authorities as well as mobile network service providers.

The good news is that there are large volumes of data available for modeling and forecasting the pandemic. The bad news is that the Nigerian government was unable to leverage the data to enhance its response to a public health emergency. Data is often described as today’s oil, a saying with particular resonance to Nigerians, but like oil is not useful until it is refined, in this case into information and insights.

Yet as of July 1, Nigeria had tested just 138,462 samples for coronovirus in a population of over 200 million people. This figure indicates a failure in contact tracing but also suggests an inability to harness the power of data for predictive modeling.

The seemingly sudden outbreak reported in Kano, a crowded urban city with vulnerable groups who may be unable to practice physical or social distancing, while care and assistance did not reach the poorest people in most parts of the country, is evidence that the government could not predict infection hotspots or identify the groups most vulnerable to suffering during the pandemic.

Nigeria’s data policy shortcomings

With no solutions, palliatives or a plan for preventing a spike in infection, citizens’ agitation forced the government to prematurely (when cases were rising steeply) ease the lockdown. Comparatively, many countries rapidly aggregated multisource data to spatially track cases and develop predictive modeling for infection. One article describes how Taiwan integrated its national insurance database with its migration and customs database to begin its data analytics approach. This aided Taiwan in its case identification by generating real-time alerts.

Singapore, South Korea, China and Israel all tapped into big data by using a combination of smartphones, GPS, credit card transactions, and satellite technologies to track infection rates and potential hotspots. Even in privacy-conscious Europe, the European Commission requested Europe’s Telecom giants to share aggregated metadata from their customers to help predict the spread of COVID-19 and determine where people’s needs for medical supplies were pressing.

Remarkably, the problem is not only that this data is not presently mainstreamed into Nigeria’s public policy and decision making, but it is also clear that there is no vision on how to move that sector forward. For example, the recently released National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy 2020-2030 did not articulate a policy framework for creating either a (national) data infrastructure to leverage data in providing more efficient and responsive public services, or for regulations on the ethical and responsible use of data by government and its agencies.

A third lesson follows, in that Nigeria’s regulation is still not responsive. Perhaps one reason why Nigeria was unable to harness the power of data, particularly personal data, is because it lacks a comprehensive law on data protection.

People will generally be concerned about their personal data and many suspicions follow the deployment of contact tracing apps. The EU added to its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) with recommendations on the use of technology and data, in order to combat and exit the COVID-19 crises. Australia conducted an impact assessment and passed a law on use of personal data collected through the COVIDsafe contact tracing app.

Yet the NITDA in Nigeria, which developed and administers the country’s NDPR, has thus far failed to issue a guideline on the use of personal data during the pandemic. Further, the Nigeria Digital Economy Strategy spans a period of only 10 years. According to the World Bank, the typical 5- to 10-year cycle in making policy is no longer sustainable as governments need to continually reinvent technology-related policies to ensure they are consistent with new innovations and create economic opportunity.

Critical importance of inclusion

The pandemic has exposed these vulnerabilities, but also the urgency for change with a digital economy that needs to be inclusive. A recent United Nations report shows that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates existing inequality and vulnerabilities in socioeconomic and political systems, particularly for women and girls. In Nigeria, women are already less likely than men to have formal employment, their own bank accounts, access to the internet, or even own smartphones or other digital economy-enabling devices.

Therefore, it would not be surprising if statistics also show that more women lost income and are otherwise disadvantaged during the pandemic. Nigeria has one of the widest gender gaps in financial inclusion in the world, but the Digital Economy Strategy does not contain implementation strategies for either using digital technologies to close the financial-inclusion gender divide or more generally empower women. This omission suggests that Nigerian policy is not committed to the central theme of the UN SDGs of leaving no one behind.

The lessons highlighted here are vital because essential services increasingly depend on data and digital technologies, and economies are measured by their levels of digital infrastructure, integration and access and skills. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the necessity of Nigeria’s economic diversification, with committed action on digital inclusion and a regulatory environment that supports that access in a rapidly changing world.

Image: NCDC file

Adekemi Omotubora is a lecturer at the Department of Commercial and Industrial Law, University of Lagos.

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